Choosing the right wine in a restaurant

Timothy Barber
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I never know what to do about wine ordering when entertaining clients. What advice can you give me? Jeffery, private wealth manager, 34

WHEN you’re entertaining guests at a restaurant, you’ve got three jobs: book it, choose the wine and pay the bill. One and three are easy, but there’s nowhere to hide when you’re presented with a wine list the length of a 19th century French novel, and you don’t know your Sauvignons from your Servernies.

You can help yourself out by getting ahead of the game. “Most good restaurants have their wine lists online, so you can do a bit of research,” says Chris Orr, managing director of bespoke wine service Quintessentially Wine. “If you’re planning to spend a bit, call the restaurant and speak to the sommelier in advance. Discuss what you want and even ask them to decant it ahead of time.”

Don’t be embarrassed about asking for a sommelier’s expertise, but you need to do it in the right way. For a start, remember that their job is to make the restaurant its money (kitchens barely even break even on food, and the wine mark-up is by far the most profitable area). Sommeliers normally order wine on credit that they pay for six weeks later, in which time they’ll look to shift all those bottles at the biggest profit. That means they may have wines they’re particularly keen to sell.

“They’ll be looking to push stuff, so you need to give them as detailed a spec as possible in terms of what you’re looking for,” says Nick Page, head of food and wine matching at wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd. “Point to a wine and tell them this is the price point you’re aiming for, discuss the dishes you’re having and he should give you some reliable options.”

The most popular wines in restaurants are always the second cheapest (since no one wants to seem too much of a skinflint), which means they’re also the ones they’ll be making the biggest margin on, so steer clear. While restaurants generally apply a 70 per cent mark up, at a certain level this reduces dramatically. “Over about £60 they’ll just be looking for a cash profit, and the wines will be much better value for what you spend,” says Page.

What of the old maxim that you should have red wine with meat and white wine with fish? Certainly, fuller wines with high tannin content go with heavier, fattier dishes, and vice versa, but don’t feel too constricted. “Life is too short for those kinds of rules, and when you’ve got 400 wines to chose from, why not be curious and try different things,” says Chris Orr. If you’re looking for some safe bets, however, Page says that French Chablis wines from 2006 and 2008 go with anything, while you can’t go wrong with Cotes du Rhone reds from 2005-2007, which are as reliable as they are plentiful.

Then there’s the tasting. Swirl the glass a bit, sniff it and then give it a good taste. “If it’s not what you require, let the sommelier know,” says Orr. “If you’re spending a lot, it’s worth getting right, and they’ll change it.”